—Update: The Department of Health reported 21 more COVID-19-related fatalities Friday afternoon. This story has been updated to reflect that.
Gov. Mark Gordon extended Wyoming’s statewide mask mandate through Valentine’s Day this week as the highly contagious UK variant of the COVID-19 virus surfaced in Teton County and healthcare providers struggled to meet demand for vaccines.
Gordon also relaxed restrictions on gatherings, citing the state’s decreasing hospitalization numbers. Starting Monday, indoor gatherings that incorporate social distancing and face coverings are permitted for up to 25% of capacity or 250 people.
COVID-19-related deaths trends signal that fatalities resulting from the state’s November spike may be slowing. Active cases also declined slightly. Gordon struck an optimistic note Thursday.
“Wyoming is making progress and coming closer to safely returning to more normal lives, and the steps we have taken are helping us achieve this,” Gordon said in a statement.
Health officials, however, remain concerned about the discovery of the UK variant in the northwest pocket of the state, where case counts are soaring. The variant infected an adult male and early information suggests he was exposed to the virus variant locally, the Department of Health said.
State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist was not surprised by the discovery, she said in a release. “However, this strain is more transmissible than previous COVID-19 variants and that is a serious concern,” she said.
In fact, Teton County is being gripped by a surge that has prompted health officials to move it into the highest category for COVID-19 risk, “critical.”
The county has been among the state’s highest for new daily lab-confirmed cases recently, and as of Thursday tallied 298 active cases, a near record. Between Jan. 5-18, Teton County detected over 540 new cases — the highest number in a two week period. Nearly 60% of the beds at St. John’s Health hospital were occupied.
Health officials there are pleading with residents to help slow the spread.
“With the identification of the COVID-19 variant along with cases of COVID-19 rapidly rising in our community, we are asking all residents to follow Recommendation #11 and gather with members of your household only,” Teton District Health Officer Travis Riddell said in a Jan. 16 press release. “Our community is in perhaps the most critical position we have faced yet in the course of this pandemic.”
The Jackson Town Council and the county commission both unanimously supported Riddell’s recommendation, the Jackson Hole News&Guide reports.
Officials do not believe the variant increases the severity of illness, Harrist said, “but a variant spreading more easily between people means the number of infections could grow causing more illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths.”
As of Thursday, health workers had administered 28,889 first doses, the Department of Health said. However, fewer than 5,000 residents had received their second doses.
Meanwhile, known active cases in the state stayed fairly steady, hovering around 2,000 throughout the week. As of Friday morning, there were 1,881 active cases, a slight decline from last week.
The DOH reported 49 additional COVID-related deaths this week for a total of 571. Some 33 were reported last week and 51 the week before. December remains the state’s deadliest month yet with 223 fatalities reported.
Virus-related hospitalizations also continued a downward trend with 84 reported Thursday afternoon, down five from last week.
All told, Wyoming has tallied 43,041 lab-confirmed infections. That includes 1,413 new cases this week, a 34% decrease over last week’s tally.
Despite promising metrics, Harrist urged residents to continue vigilance.
“It is still very important for Wyoming residents to wear masks, to practice physical distancing and avoid large gatherings and to stay home when they are ill unless seeking medical care,” Harrist said.